Alene Lee – Subterranean Muse
by Steven O’Sullivan
Alene Lee is the real name of The Subterraneans’ Mardou Fox, and of Irene May from Big Sur and Book of Dreams. Little is known about her, as she fell from the unwanted spotlight. She isn’t even acknowledged in books devoted to the women of the Beat Generation.
We have seen photos of her, and we know part of her racial heritage – black & Cherokee. We know Kerouac met her as she typed manuscripts for Burroughs and Ginsberg in New York. But her words are lost. Her memory exists only in the macho boasts of Kerouac…
More than likely you’re wondering, “Who the hell is Alene Lee?” And that, my friends, is exactly the point. We can look at pictures of Ms. Lee and see that she was dark, beautiful, unsure, and volatile. Yet this is only scratching the surface, presumably more lies beneath the surface. . . Right?
Granted, the above-mentioned are fantastic descriptors that I’m sure any woman would settle for, but Lee had to be more than that. Through one tabloid-esque fictionalization of her spontaneous relationship with Mr. Kerouac in the Beat classic The Subterraneans as the maddening Mardou Fox, Lee became the looming question mark of the Beat generation. By all accounts, an enchanting but volatile whirlwind of a woman.
Easily, The Subterraneans is a re-telling of the tumultuous thunder of Jack and Alene (Leo and Mardou respectively). Lee maintained however that upon reading the book she was stunned. Jack, she said, was so excited to show it to her and then, in her eyes, the manuscript turned out to be a harsh and unforgiving account that was maybe just a little too revealing of the personal side of their respective egos.
Apparently there’s a problem on our hands now. Jack writes a best-selling book that Alene claims is an absolute sham. So, who’s got it straight? Did things really go down like Jack said or is he just another classic male bullshit artist? A slave of the ego. These questions can probably best be answered by first determining who she really was…
By all published accounts (the few that there are), Lee’s essence was that of the queen of cool. A high priestess in the realm of that crowd Jack tagged infamously as the Subterraneans. She hit the trippiest drugs, drank the stiffest drinks, knew about and listened to the hardest bop, and did it all with a collected, smoky exterior. Men fell at her feet muttering drunken praises. Cup of wine in hand at Dante’s. espousing the virtue of the nouveau cool.
At least, this is how he paints her in the beginning. As the novel progresses we see her devolving into an emotional train wreck. She’s all ups and downs and binges into dark depression and hopeless emotional attachment to Jack. Things are much darker when you step behind the circus doors. Exteriors of shimmering cool are most often built on foundations of volatile instability.
Was this why Lee felt such a cold-water stun at reading the manuscript? Having one’s soul bared open and critiqued is a moment of pain and vulnerability. Within the context of the novel she seemed aware of her emotional traumas and tendencies towards madness, yet that was a personal side of an experience she shared with Jack. Their moments together were shared in bed, with the lights off, amidst wine and dark-eyed companionship. They were shared in trust. To then have the contents of this trust betrayed into daylight for a public audience to view at will… that is a low-blow. Right into the gut. The kind of blow that gives you those cheese grater guts, and really, what are you supposed to do? It’s like drinking bitter wine… a cold emotional slap. The relationship thrown back at her. There… Did it taste as good as you thought it might?
Of course, let’s try to take this objectively. We’ll presuppose Jack’s painting of Lee is accurate. Lee really was just a fuming mass of unpredictable feminine wiles. Does he have the right to put these details in a book? We might immediately jump to a decisive no. It was a personal experience between two lovers that should have remained private. Well, sure that’s all well and good, but what the hell is the whole basis of literature? Experience. Life. The muse. Inspiration comes from somewhere. Stories rot out from something. Let’s not write this off as something to be vaulted and set aside. Propriety is an illusion.
Run right along, alone little dog.
Maybe the Beach Boys were right. Wouldn’t it be nice if this were a completely different scenario? What if Jack was getting played? What if we were all getting played… The whole thing a mocking dirty sham. Lee’s a brilliant scholar working on a sociological grant from Berkley to conduct a study on Frisco’s underbelly. Roaring youth counterculture class mash. She’s playing it up. The queen. The butterfly. Move in for the kill. Jack’s the prey. Isn’t it great? That tortured artist that he felt so strongly about embodying. Splitting time between home, mother, writing, work productivity. . . then booze, women, madness, dark, night, evil. Teetotalling between Catholicism and Alocholism in a hail of madness. And Lee’s just soaking it up. Loving it. Provoking him, creating him, watching and waiting and wrenching. Page after page of theory work being sent back to the school. The professor is laughing, tenure at his doorstep. A brilliant social statement. Capturing the essence of the solitary rebel. After all, there were those countless thru-the-night-into-dawn times she’d sit alone reading thru anthologies and classics and theory and again and again.
Of course, life is not quite so fortunate in its doling out, no matter how much you might read. Lee wasn’t a shiny scholar from Berkley. She wasn’t a scholar of anywhere. Lee was just a cold-water flat girl off Heavenly Lane. Running around in rags and raggedy windblown hair. Sure, the goddess of cool. Smoked out withdrawals and all.
They were both mad. Her and Jack. Mad for each other, for the kicks, for that salty coastal air that chaps your lips and spark jumps your heart full of shutter-closed closeness and disaster.
We’re starving here.
Where are we going now?
Let’s remember Lee’s own words:
These were not the times as I knew them. . .
So why had Kerouac seen them as such? Perhaps his egocentric mindset blocked him from emotional connection. Sexual experience served only to stimulate his creative mind. Of course that would mean reducing all interaction with Lee to solely a sexual endeavor of experiential function. He had just read Reich’s The Function of the Orgasm which sparked and nurtured this fleeting idealism about relations. Release of sexual energy and tension frees the creative mind. To run right out the door straight home to the typer for day upon day of firing off inkspot ammunition onto page after page into a cup of literary excellence. The forthcoming novel to end all novels. Bound up sexual tension constricts the wellspring. Alene Lee was a jungle-gym. Mark Twain’s laughing all over again.
But let’s not make her out to be a saint just yet. Granted, we can logically assume that, given Jack’s egocentric stance combined with a slight tendency towards chauvinism, he may have blown some events out of proportion. Maybe even made up a few of them. It was a book, after all, so let’s cut him at least a length of slack for a minute.
Even still, despite what he may or may not have whipped out of thin air. . . where does that leave us with the ending? What do we do about that? There’s Lee’s downfall. Sleeping with Yuri. The final turn of the screw in Jack’s madness. One step over the line and such.
I’ll tell you where it leaves us: It leaves us at the end of a story. And I’ll tell you where it leaves Alene Lee: At the end of a story.
It seems that the “Lee Problem” is one of perception. It is quite and commonly possible for two people to be involved with each other and for each of them to be taking completely different elements out of the situation. To be seeing things under totally different lens. The two might agree the sex last night was great but they might have polar opposite reasons for thinking such. Come on, what’s more vague than the term “great sex?” In fact, even more than that, they are probably coming from completely different foundations for judging such situations. The night’s events might have been great for the lady because she finally felt fulfilled and appreciated while the experience was great for the guy just because the lady was such a physical maelstrom; which could of course play a hand into why she felt fulfilled: He’s operating on a pulsating level of intensity due to being so aroused by her physical attributes; this intensity translates in turn to an overwhelming work of sensory reception for the woman. Thus, it becomes the most cataclysmic event of her sensual and emotional life. The question is… where are we drawing the line? Is he just in for the kicks? Is she just in for the kicks? Was it a great big overwhelming kick for the both of them, or was it something more for her, something more for him?
This is, of course, a microcosmic example of problems involving perception. Yet it can still be applied to the Lee situation as a whole. Maybe they were just worlds apart. On completely different planes of thinking and experiencing life. But everything’s got to intersect at some point. Some vector of divination juxtaposing two separate identities for a brief while. Suspending starvation and stability for a half-cocked shot at tranquility.
More death. This is getting swept away. Not under the rug, but out the door. It’s been exposed to the elements too long. I’m losing it.
Where are we left now? Back to a dark and beautiful shade. The high priestess of hip looking down from wherever it is the hipsters go to die and reign eternally in those cyclical cultural waves. We’re in a maze or a whirlpool and I’m getting less and less sure of what it is.
Maybe Jack, for all his allegations and insecurities, had Lee figured out. He had at least figured out a way to preserve her, you can argue in what light and reference, but she’s there still. Locked in the amber of Jack’s mind… page 42… gazing at Lee on the bed…
“. . .so Mardou seen in this light, is a little brown body in a gray bed sheet in the slums of Telegraph Hill, huge figure in the history of the night yes but only one among many. . .”
The Beat Generation may have been only one roaring night in the scheme of literature, and Lee was just the screaming distraction between drink six and drink seven. You know there was something there. You just can’t pin it down exactly.
That’s the way it goes with nights like that. Nights like Alene Lee. And so she’ll slip even further into the murky waters of literature’s muses. Obscured by time.
And now, a closing word from our sponsor. . .
Letter from Ginsberg to Snyder. Dated January 1, 1991. Contains following excerpt:
Spent a day with old love black lady Alene Lee hospital bed dying of cancer, near expiration, the room space seemed calm, grounded — extremely peaceful — perhaps her mind in that state so open and gentle i sense it — felt very good — carried me for days. . .
There isn’t a lot of additional reading available out there on the subject of Alene Lee. People are happy to write her out of history and move on. They don’t need more than a fictional character in a book to be satisfied.
But here at Beatdom we always want to know more, and thanks to the following clues from Dave Moore (the Kerouac expert who brought you two articles in this issue), here is a list of places you can go to find out more:
Kerouac, Jack, Book of Dreams
Kerouac, Jack, Big Sur
Kerouac, Jack, The Subterraneans,
Knight, Arthur, The Beat Journey (p. 172)
Knight, Arthur, The Beat Vision (p. 208)
Morgan, Bill, The Beat Generation in New York (p. 125)
Sandison, David, Jack Kerouac: An Illustrated Biography (p. 106)
Saroyan, Aran, The Street
Turner, Steven, Angelheaded Hipster (p. 142)